“Miss Fairweather.” Gleason’s voice had descended from chilly to arctic, annoyance dripping off every syllable. And when Sabrina turned to face him, she could see why — the merchant was out of breath from attempting to catch up with a woman who possessed legs considerably longer than his own. Nothing like a reminder of his lack of height to put the holder of her debt in a poor humor.
Despite having already gotten off to a bad start, though, Sabrina couldn’t resist adding to the slight by correcting his wording. “Captain Fairweather.”
Only when a wintry zephyr stroked icy tendrils against her fingertips did Sabrina realize that a nearly inaudible hum was rising along the back of her throat and calling her breezes back to heel. Well, what the heck. It’s not as if he doesn’t already know what I am, she thought, changing the pitch of her tune in order to waft the current away to settle clammily against her opponent’s exposed skin.
Gleason shivered, but an abrupt chill to the air wasn’t enough to topple him from his high horse. Instead, his rebuttal came out as a sneer. “Captain of a ship to which I rightfully own the title.”
“What title?” Sabrina countered. Because Gleason was right and Gleason was wrong. Yes, her inherited airship came with a long-term debt that she’d need another decade to pay off. But this wasn’t the Before. There was no piece of paper to convey ownership and no court to award damages should she fail to settle in a timely manner.
If Sabrina wanted, she could take her dirigible and her independence and start over somewhere else entirely. Maybe fly to the western reaches and see what opportunities existed in that no man’s land or develop new routes in the opposite direction by supplying raft colonies out at sea.
And yet, despite possessing numerous options to evade Gleason’s unpleasant presence, Sabrina hadn’t missed a single payment. So why was this trumped-up banker dogging her heels and impinging upon her enjoyment of a festival that came around only once a year?
“I can see those clever little wheels turning in your head,” Gleason said after a moment. “But you’d best not forget your place. I’m respected along the airways. When I said you’d deliver, everyone knew you’d deliver. I vouched for you once…but it wouldn’t take much for me to change my tune.”
And that part’s true. As much as she might kick herself for the mistake, seven years ago Sabrina had indeed played into this blackmailer’s grubby little hands. After being orphaned at the age of twenty, she’d signed papers she shouldn’t have signed, had borrowed money she shouldn’t have borrowed, and had given Gleason far too much control over her in the process.
But Sabrina wasn’t desperate any longer. She had friends in high places, gigs galore due to befriending an earth witch then being accepted as a courier by that witch’s dragon-shifter mate. No matter what Gleason wanted her to believe now, the airship captain wasn’t dependent upon the merchant’s good graces any longer.
So Sabrina took a step closer and peered down her straight nose at her opponent’s battered countenance. Like a gamecock, Gleason had yet to see a fight that didn’t look like a good time. And even though he often won those dockside contests, he still boasted a jointed nose and two cauliflower ears from one too many fists to the head.
Perhaps that frequent pummeling would also explain away his surly nature?
“Get to the point,” she growled once the merchant’s eyes had slid to the side in a subtle but real indication that he was willing to back down.
And even though Gleason clearly didn’t want to admit he’d been cowed, he obeyed. “I have a job for you,” he said at last.
Great. It wouldn’t just be a job, of course. If it had been an ordinary gig, Gleason would have sent her a message the usual way — mechanical pigeon — then taken his exorbitant cut of the proceeds. No, the holder of her debt had run into trouble and he planned to use Sabrina’s bond to extricate himself from the quagmire.
“Not interested,” she said, knowing even as she spoke that Gleason wouldn’t let her off the hook so easily.
Sure enough, the vertically challenged merchant took one step closer, and this time he gazed not at her but at Zach’s gawky form browsing through shelves of bottles and canisters within the glass-fronted shop. Sabrina’s breath caught and she forced herself not to shuffle around so she could shield her sibling from view with her own tall frame.
“I heard through the grapevine that you’d been saddled with a half-brother this winter,” Gleason said, his smile ingratiating but his words loaded with deeper meaning. “He looks old enough to man up and take on your father’s debt if you’re no longer interested….”
Heat rushed to Sabrina’s cheeks, and despite herself she felt magic fluttering around her braids once again. It would be so easy to call up a gale, to push her own personal pain in the butt straight down the street and out into the wakening Green beyond the borders of the burn zone. If she was lucky, the plants might eat Gleason alive and put her out of her misery.
“…Or perhaps he’d like to know what his old man really got up to during those long tours?” the blackmailer continued slyly. “Perhaps everyone would like to know.”
And there it was, the real reason Sabrina continued to kowtow to this puny gamecock. She could start over somewhere else…but people in the trade had long memories. Sabrina’s crew didn’t deserve relegation to the periphery of what passed for civilization, and Zach didn’t deserve yet another source of shadows to darken his sky blue eyes.
No, Sabrina couldn’t afford to reject Gleason’s offered gig outright. Not when she had so many secrets she was bound and determined to keep…not when her banker held those same secrets tightly grasped in his pugilistic fists.
Instead, she gave in to her maternal instincts and angled her body so the blackmailer was forced to turn away from Zach’s innocent form in order to look her directly in the face. “Okay,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’ll do it. What’s the job?”
The cold certainty in Gleason’s eyes was worse than any smile. He’d known she’d cave and had planned the upcoming details to be yet another slap in the face.
“Some colleagues of mine misplaced a female dragon,” her blackmailer answered after letting Sabrina stew for several long seconds. “They tracked her to the home of some acquaintances of yours, a very difficult place to breach if you’re not already welcome there….”
Knowing where her opponent was going before he even completed his thought, Sabrina began to swear with all the fluency of a lifelong sailor. Was she really being asked to betray her one true friend as the price for maintaining a long-hidden secret?
“Your job is simple,” Gleason continued, ignoring both vociferous complaints and angry breezes. “Just collect the dragon and bring her back to her family. Then your debt will be considered paid in full.”